Penguin’s Modern Classics imprint has often delved into popular and genre fiction for its reissues, but rarely has it covered so many with one author. Walter Tevis’s first two books, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, are best remembered for the films they inspired. Both have been reissued this month, along with Tevis’s last novel The Queen’s Gambit, to submit to the test of literary longevity too. (An aside at this early stage. Which Tevis to read next? He wrote just five novels, three reissued here. A friend cites another, Mockingbird, as a favourite in her home. That leaves The Steps of the Sun, about which I know less than nothing.)
The Hustler (1959) introduces Eddie Felson (‘Fast Eddie’), a pool hustler whose reputation precedes – and possibly exceeds – him. “They say he’s the best. They say he’s got talent,” says one player in Bennington’s pool hall in Chicago. “Guys who seen him play say he’s the best there is.” “I heard that before,” says his companion. “I heard that before about a lot of second-rate hustlers.” “Sure. But everybody says he pushed over Johnny Varges out in LA.” “Did you see the game?” “No, but…” “Who did? You ever see anybody who ever saw Eddie Felson shoot pool?”
But Eddie Felson is real, and does shoot pool like nobody else, except perhaps Minnesota Fats. He comes to Bennington’s with his ‘manager’ Charlie to play Fats, reputedly the best pool shooter in the country. Their match lasts for 40 hours, and the chapter that relates it is as long as all the previous chapters in the book together. Tevis doesn’t so much build tension – he defuses it with blunt statements on who will win or lose the games he’s about to describe – as deal the reader in on Eddie’s gruelling experience.
Then someone turned off all the lights except those over the table that they were playing on and the background of Bennington’s vanished, leaving only the faces of the crowd around the table, the green of the cloth of the table, and the now sharply-etched, clean, black-shadowed balls, brilliant against the green. The balls had sharp, jeweled edges; the cue ball itself was a milk-white jewel and it was a magnificent thing to watch the balls roll and to know beforehand where they were going to roll. Nothing could be so clear or so simple or so excellent to do.
There is not much artistry in Tevis’s writing but there is some style. He leaves the reader in no doubt as to Eddie’s feelings and thoughts as he moves on from the game with Fats, encounters a girl, and gets involved with some (more) doubtful characters. What interested me about The Hustler was not the prose but the portrayal of a character so apparently unsympathetic. Eddie appears arrogant, if aware of it. Tevis doesn’t present us with a broken background to justify Eddie’s overcompensating hubris; are we supposed to like him, to root for him? Does it matter?
Eddie becomes a sort of proto-male archetype, determined to “find out his position” in the pool world, pushed by some kind of macho determination to challenge himself. It’s a character type I find fascinating probably because it differs so much from my own. (Where Eddie takes on a contest after being accused of being ‘chicken’, my response would have been, ‘Yes I am chicken. I’m afraid I might lose’. The same applies to my failure to understand why a boxer who wins a title fight would agree to a rematch. In that case of course, it’s the economics, stupid.) Only when Eddie establishes a relationship and has “something to go home to” does his hunger for success on the green baize begin to diminish. He is a complex character only in the sense that everyone is a complex character.
For a hustler such as Eddie, everyone is a hustler. (Though he dislikes being called a ‘shark’). Even radio ads are “hustles”. He can trust nobody, which turns out to be a wise move, as the book gives us a bold climax to Eddie’s fall and rise. It’s quite a brave ending, and fortunately Tevis resisted the temptation to write a sequel [no he didn’t! See below]. The sequel was also filmed, starring Paul Newman again, though the only thing it retained from Tevis’s book was its title, from the closing pages of The Hustler. There, the pool table is “the rectangle of lovely, mystical green, the color of money.”